Sometimes I feel an overwhelming need to be on my own, craving solitude rather than fearing it.
With a demanding work schedule, two teenage boys and the lion’s share of household chores to manage, life’s a never-ending treadmill.
So when asked if I’d try being lonely for five days – with no phone and no computer – it was an easy decision.
A nice holiday away from the madness? Yes, please!
Yet Britain is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic, according to older people’s charity The Silver Line, and it’s no holiday for those suffering.
This is my diary:
I arrive at my new home, a tiny flat in Hackney, East London.
It’s a bit on the chilly side – good job I packed lots of cosy jumpers and woolly socks.
I can almost hear the quietness. No one here but me.
I dump my suitcase in the bedroom and check out the tiny kitchenette. By 2pm I’ve done everything.
By everything, I mean I’ve unpacked my case.
What do I do now? Don’t fancy watching telly, otherwise I’ll have nothing to look forward to later. I’m not in the mood for reading, either.
I’d feel too guilty indulging myself when it’s early afternoon and I should be doing something useful. I go out to explore the local area.
I buy food for later, wander around, find a coffee shop and sit on my own wondering what the hell I’m going to do with the rest of the day.
I find myself checking my watch intermittently. The time’s going very slowly.
I walk back to my new home. An ice-cream van jangles into the road, mums grabbing excited kids’ hands as they run out of their houses.
I think of my boys when they were little and I was their world.
Think of my mum and her huge smile and how she loved us to desperation.
Feel an overwhelming guilt that she spent her last days in a care home. And died alone.
I check my watch again: 6pm. Oh, good, the news.
Half past six and I’m watching the news again, on the other side, and looking forward to Emmerdale.
This is going to be harder than I thought.
I think about my dad. I moved him to a flat nearer me when he had Alzheimer’s.
I visited when work and two young boys allowed, but mostly he was alone.
I buy a bottle of wine to cheer me up. Corrie’s on – like familiar friends who’ve followed me to my temporary home.
Wake up around 7am-ish. Roll over and instinctively check the other side of the bed.
I’m still alone. Deflated. A black cloud occupying part of my head.
I can’t believe I feel so despondent, so unimportant, so early on. What’s the point of getting up? What happened to the me who sometimes wishes the daily family duties would wash away and leave me untethered?
I’ve only been on my own for one day! I turn over, switch the radio on and doze… It’s 10.30am.
I’m wasting time, in the hope it’ll pass quickly.
I pull myself out of bed, wondering what my purpose is now.
I’m craving a coffee. Pull some clothes on, a smidgen of make-up, and off I go.
Everyone’s with someone. I feel sort of diminished. As if I don’t matter.
I smile at everyone, in the hope they’ll smile back. The coffee shop is buzzing, mainly mums talking about their kids. I am invisible.
I am truly shocked at how unimportant I feel after one night away from home.
It gives me a chilling insight into what the future might hold: me on my own, my husband gone, my kids too busy with their own lives to care about me.
I am sick of me, so I walk and walk in the hope of leaving myself behind.
I trudge the long way back to my flat, slowly, via a wine shop. I’m not enjoying food. I’m barely eating at all. It holds no pleasure when you’re cooking for one. And eating in silence. Save for the telly.
Up late again – nearly midday! Good. Half the day gone. I can’t stay in. I go out to grab a coffee and am startled when I open my mouth and find it hard to speak.
It dawns on me that it’s because I’ve hardly spoken to anyone for two days. I smile inanely at anyone who catches my eye – like a dog pleading for its owner’s attention – feeling insignificant, unloved.
I still can’t understand why I feel so desolate so early on. I walk to the park and spot a middle-aged couple chatting with that familiar closeness I miss so much.
I go to the cinema. It’s just me and two chattering, happy ladies watching Victoria & Abdul. I envy them having each other.
And when Dame Judi Dench, as Queen Victoria, said: ‘I am so lonely. Everyone I have ever loved has died,’ I cried.
The worst day so far. I wake up tearful, a massive black weight in my head, a pointlessness preventing me from going out, but not wanting to stay in either.
Loneliness is physically affecting me. I go back to sleep to blot it all out. It’s 1pm-ish before I drag myself up. Good. More than half the day gone already.
Thank goodness for my coffee addiction, the only reason I move myself out of the door.
I feel tearful; can’t stop thinking about what it must be like having no one to talk to. No one. I want to swallow time up, but also want to turn it back to be with mum and dad again and tell them how very much I loved them.
I can’t bear the thought of going back to that chilly flat with my boring, miserable self. I feel older and truly diminished.
In just three and a half days, my self-esteem has plummeted – being, as it is, so tied up in the interaction I have with other people: friends, family, a smile from a stranger, my stature at work.
I feel wretched, even though I am lucky to be fit enough to escape my flat. Many older people don’t have that choice.
I sleep in far too late again. Self-worth continues to plummet. Walk, walk, walk.
Still can’t get away from myself. Go back to the flat. Don’t want to stay there. I miss my phone and my computer.
Walk. Smile at a man.
He smiles. Says, ‘Hi’. Makes me temporarily happy! Back to the flat.
I’ve seen very few older people out and about during my time here. Where are they all?
Go to the cinema. I realise I’ve spoken to three people today – smiling man, coffee-shop assistant and cinema-ticket lady.
A record for my stay here! More telly.
I’m going home! I am almost dumb with loneliness. My jeans are hanging off me, because eating has been perfunctory.
Joyless. Nearly half of over-75s live alone. That truly saddens me.
Loneliness has been so much harder than I thought it would be. Being loved, wanted and needed is what makes us human.
Loneliness almost dehumanised me. I fervently hope I never have to experience it again.
I’ll be having a word with my boys when I get home!
The Silver Line helpline is available 24 hours a day on 0800 4708090. To donate go to thesilverline.org.uk. A version of this article also appears in Saga magazine.
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